Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
05 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
You know the story line for this one. Andy Reid, with his job on the line, is hoping that his quarterback -- whose job is also on the line -- can get on track against a Saints defense that has given up more yards through the first seven games than any defense in NFL history. Clearly, Reid feels that Michael Vick gives the Eagles the best chance to win. Otherwise, he’d start Nick Foles now, as there isn’t a better defense for a rookie to face than the most porous one in the league. Some have speculated that Reid isn’t starting Foles because he doesn’t want the rookie’s debut to be on a nationally televised stage. But the alternative -– having his polarizing veteran quarterback try to save his job on a nationally televised stage –- isn’t much better. Especially considering that if it all hits the fan and Reid turns to Foles after this game, the rookie will make his debut at The Linc against division rival Dallas.
As explained by NFL Matchup producer Greg Cosell, in college Foles worked in a tightly-managed shotgun scheme at Arizona that was full of easy one-read concepts. His arm speed was slow, as were his feet. He needed space in order to throw. His intermediate passing game was non-existent. So, basically, Foles is an un-gifted version of Vick. But at least he’s six inches taller...
In all likelihood, the talk about Vick’s job security will briefly subside after this game, as the Eagles shouldn’t have much trouble with a Saints defense that can’t rush the passer no matter what the play call. Gregg Williams always had to generate pressure with all-out blitzes. His man-based scheme was conducive to this sort of pressure. Steve Spagnuolo runs a vastly different zone scheme. He’s less aggressive than Williams but still assertive as a blitz-caller. Problem is, with the Saints defensive backs not adjusting well to their new coverages this year, Spags has had to put his blitzes on the back burner. What’s left is a pass-rush that might as well consist of four corpses.
Wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will have plenty of downfield opportunities Monday night, especially off play-action, where the Saints safeties tend to be over-reactive. It’s a myth that you have to establish the run in order to use play-action, but the Eagles might as well feed LeSean McCoy early, as the Saints defensive line has shown no ability to shed blocks in 2012. Perhaps replacing starting defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley with third-round rookie Akiem Hicks will help, as it did last week at Denver. And maybe Jonathan Vilma can get more comfortable at the unfamiliar weakside linebacker position. But until we actually see these improvements, the smart outlook on the New Orleans defense is one of pessimism.
In his debut as defensive coordinator last week, Todd Bowles showed the same predictable reluctance to blitz that many believe Juan Castillo was fired for. You can understand Bowles’ thinking, though. He works for a team that has invested heavily in wide-9 pass-rushing ends as well as lockdown man-to-man corners. The reason teams spend money on players like these is so they can play defense without blitzing, no?
Philly’s main problem is that a lot of their good defenders simply aren’t producing. Trent Cole and Jason Babin consistently skimmed the corner and got pressure early in the season, but they’ve both been held sackless the past four games. Sacks often don’t tell the whole story, of course, but the fact that Philly is rotating more at defensive end this season (particularly at Babin’s spot) suggests the coaches aren’t head over heels about the performance of their star veterans.
They shouldn’t be thrilled with Nnamdi Asomugha, either. He’s been good, but nothing more. Teams don’t spend over $10 million a year for "good." There are murmurs that Asomugha has lost his passion for the game. No telling whether that’s true or not, but what is true is that Asomugha doesn't have the same initial burst behind his fluid speed and quickness. Style-wise, for this game, he matches up well with Marques Colston ... outside. But the Saints, of course, will frequently align Colston inside, which means the Eagles will likely have to play some form of interior zone, as nickel back Brandon Boykin doesn’t have enough size to fight the 6-foot-, 225-pound receiver.
Most of the New Orleans passing game is designed around getting one-on-one matchups between the numbers. In this sense, Colston isn’t the only target who presents trouble for Philadelphia. Tight end Jimmy Graham, if healthy (he didn’t quite look like his usual self coming back from an ankle injury last Sunday night), will be a nightmare for Philly’s athletic but undisciplined safeties. It’s possible the Eagles will try to defend Graham with rookie outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. That’d be a gamble in and of itself, and it’d likely leave a mismatch open for Darren Sproles.
The best way to defend Drew Brees is to blitz him. Too often, teams look at New Orleans' iffy offensive tackles and quintuplet of receiver options and believe the best approach is to save bodies in coverage and hope to get natural pressure off the edges. But even if they do this, Brees is too good at moving off his spot and resetting, and he’s much too good at reading the entire field.
If Bowles wants to beat Brees, he can’t let Brees play on his own time frame. He has to blitz. Or, at the very least, threaten to blitz before the snap and trust that his defenders can be rangy in their shifts to underneath zone coverage after the snap. That’s what the Broncos often did last week. (And it’s what the Rams did when they upset the Saints last season.) If the Eagles try to just line up and outplay the Saints, Brees will pick them apart.
6 comments, Last at 06 Nov 2012, 10:15am by Anonmouse